Handing your credit card over to pay is the biggest giveaway that you’re not Canadian. Even if you have a chip card, you’ll still leave them scrambling for a pen to sign. Canadians live in a sad world without cash back rewards, or a less dangerous world without easy credit. Getting a line of credit in Canada is rite of passage. They don’t just charge everything like we do in America.

cat with loonies, toonies, and TTC tokens

There are a few differences in banking between the US and Canada to note.

  • Accounts without fees are much more common in the US than Canada. Credit card rewards and the like tend to be less enticing.
  • You will be asked for your client card number instead of your bank account number. Your client card number is your debit card number.
  • Interac e-Transfer is how everyone pays everyone else north of the border. They allow you to send payments with someone’s email or phone number, so they don’t have to share their account information. It’s not uncommon for your bank to charge a fee of a dollar or two to send them. If someone asks you to pay by email or text, this is what they’re talking about.
  • US bank accounts are insured by the FDIC for $250,000 per account. The CDIC only covers $100,000.

Do you need a Canadian bank account?

You don’t necessarily need a Canadian bank account. If your US bank has low foreign ATM withdrawal fees and you have a debit or credit card that doesn’t charge for foreign transactions, you could comfortably continue using your American bank for quite some time. You may need to update your address for your US bank account to the address of a trusted friend or family member. Since my income is coming from the US and I have a no-fee US credit card, I continue to use my US bank account as my primary account.

However, if you’re moving to Canada permanently or even just working in Canada, it’s easiest to bite the bullet and set up a Canadian bank account.

Linked US/CA accounts

If you’re moving money across the border regularly, the easiest way to do this is to find a bank that offers linked accounts between the US and Canada. I think. Maybe. I’m not totally sure about this, so maybe I’ll feel differently in a few more months.

Even if a Canadian bank has branches in the US, it’s not actually the same bank. Banks in different countries are separate legal entities, so there’s limited services provided by the Canadian counterparts in America or vice versa.

Royal Bank of Canada

RBC recently bought the Bank of Georgia so they can provide online US bank accounts for their Canadian customers. This is primarily a system set up for Canadians to bank in the US, but it also works in reverse.

When I need to add funds to my Canadian RBC account, I transfer money into my RBC US account. Once it clears, I can then instantly transfer it to my linked RBC CAN account. Instant is kind of magical. I could also deposit cheques directly into RBC US using their app. RBC’s regular Canadian accounts will also accept US cheques without charging fees.

RBC US is an online bank, but it could replace your US bank.

  • You can get a US credit card and US mortgage using your Canadian credit score.
  • You can also use ATMs with your RBC US debit card.
  • They don’t charge you ATM fees and will reimburse you for fees on some accounts. You can use PNC Bank ATMs without a fee.
  • There are a bunch of ways you can move money into your RBC US account.
  • You don’t need to use a fake US address to open an RBC US account.

Theoretically, I could get an RBC CAN credit card and they’d take my US credit score into account.

Many of their ATMs will dispense American dollars. Their ATMs are a little dated compared to what I’m used to. The first time an RBC ATM failed to dispense cash because it was out of cash without displaying an error message, I panicked. Apparently that’s normal here. Just like it’s still normal to make ATM deposits using an envelope.

TD Bank

Once again, TD’s cross border accounts are designed for Canadians banking in the US.

TD is the logical choice for cross border banking, since they have a ton of branches in both the US and Canada. Why did I choose RBC? Because TD Bank in the US was a nightmare to deal with when buying an apartment and the thought of giving them any of my money irks me. I understand that this wasn’t a logical choice. However, they don’t make it as easy as RBC does to transfer money between countries.

  • You can move $2,500 a day between the US and CAN online or up to $100,000 a day over the phone using a wire transfer and they’ll refund the fees.
  • TD Bank will recognize your Canadian credit history in the US, so theoretically they may count it in the other direction.
  • You can use ATMs in either country without any fees, but bank staff can only help with the account for whichever country you’re in.
  • They offer travel medical insurance while you’re in the US.
  • You don’t need to use a fake US address to open or keep your TD US account.
  • You do need a US address to have a TD bank US credit card.

Bank of Montreal

Like RBC, the Bank of Montreal has acquired a US bank in order to provide online banking for Canadian snowbirds. You can link your BMO and BMO Harris accounts online and easily transfer up to $25k in each transfer from Canada to the US. Each transfer takes up to two days to clear.

Transfers from the US to Canada have to be done via wire transfer and initiated in person. BMO Harris has over 600 branches in the US.

They make it easy to view accounts on both sides of the border in one place. They also offer a Canadian US dollar credit card.

Other ways to move your money

Cash

If you’d like to move all of your money in one go or travel a lot, you can simply withdraw large amounts of cash from your American bank and deposit it into a bank in Canada. Or change it into Canadian dollars or whatever you want to do with it. It’s weird, but quite simple.

You need to declare this money at customs if it’s over CAN $10,000, but they don’t charge you any fees or anything. You may want to bring something to demonstrate that this is money you earned legally and you aren’t using it to fund terrorists. Paperwork showing that the amount corresponds with cash withdrawn from your savings account, W-2s or 1099s, or a letter from your bank will make sure you don’t spend all day getting grilled by customs agents.

I imagine it would feel pretty badass landing at Billy Bishop with a duffel bag of cash.

US personal cheques, bank cheques and money orders

Many Canadian banks will accept American cheques for a fee, ranging from $5 to $20. You can simply write a cheque from your US account to yourself at your Canadian account. You can also request an international money order or bank cheque from your US bank, which you may have to do in person. This isn’t the fastest way to transfer money, as foreign cheques take an extra long time to clear, usually from 10-21 business days.

Wire transfers

Wiring money from your US account to your Canadian account typically happens instantly. Unfortunately, some banks will require you to be at the branch in person to initiate this process. Typically there is a fee for both sending and receiving wire transfers, which can really add up.

I have had wire transfers go wrong. Some banks don’t seem to do wire transfers very often and may give you the wrong information. Yes, people move large amounts of money internationally all the time, but these people have private bankers. If it’s important, don’t trust what your banker tells you unless they put it in writing.

Your Canadian banking options

CIBC

CIBC doesn’t have anything special to make it easy to transfer funds between the US and Canada regularly, but they do offer discounts for new residents. They also provide basic US bank accounts and credit cards for Canadian residents. They are liberal with giving out free wire transfers, so this could be a good option if you need to occasionally wire money to or from your home country.

HSBC

I never really looked into HSBC, since they have the reputation for requiring six-digit minimum balances. That’s true for some accounts, but they also have accounts with $4 monthly fees for regular folks like us.

If you have an existing HSBC account, they make it really easy for you to transition to Canada. Even if you don’t currently have an account, they claim to provide no-fee accounts for new residents and to transfer your credit history. They provide services specifically for newcomers to Canada, but you still need to wire money between accounts. They do make it easy to view your HSBC accounts in any country in one place, which is a great feature.

PC Financial

Have you always dreamed of banking in a grocery store? Loblaws has granted your wish. They also give you a chequing account without fees, which is a rarity in Canada.

If you’re heading to the US and want to have cash in hand when you arrive, PC Financial ATMs usually are able to dispense American dollars. You can use PC Financial or CIBC ATMs.

Unfortunately, they don’t offer linked US accounts. They also don’t serve Quebec.

Tangerine

Tangerine is advertising their cash back credit cards all over, but they might not be the best option for new residents. When I tried to open a savings account, I was able to make a deposit and went to a branch in person in order to provide ID.

But then my lack of a Canadian credit history flagged my account. Why would you run a credit check for an online savings account? I have no idea. They insisted I needed to provide a copy of my Canadian taxes in order to complete the account opening process. Having been here less than a year, I don’t have those forms. They gave me the option of requesting a letter from the government confirming my resident status, but I scoffed since I (incorrectly?) thought that’s what I had done by providing my SIN when opening the account. In the end I requested that the account be closed instead. That proved to be easier said than done.

I spent about 4 hours on the phone with various customer service representatives trying to reclaim the $2,000 I opened my account with since they wouldn’t let me access or withdraw it (not even to close the account). For three weeks they promised to send me a bank cheque for my funds”in a week” but I waited nearly a month to finally receive it so I could close the account. They did let me open an account as a new resident with a SIN number and a W2 form, then took a few check deposits I wrote to myself from another personal account. However, while they accepted the deposits I gave them, now they wouldn’t give them back to me without hours and hours of follow up. All told, I lost about 7 hours of my life and couldn’t access $2,000 of my own money for 6 weeks, all to end up without a Tangerine account. Presumably, this wouldn’t happen with every new resident, but there’s a serious flaw in the system.

Scotiabank

Scotiabank offers the standard chequing account options, along with a cross border debit card to make it easy to shop, with debit, when you’re back in the US. They don’t offer a US credit card.

Your new credit score (zero)

Credit flows freely in the US, which makes us an unusual country. One of the most common types of identity theft is parents opening credit cards in the names of their children. What does that say about credit in America? Babies can get loans higher than the median US salary.

Canada isn’t quite the same, but Canadian banks with cross-border banking options will consider your US credit score when issuing credit cards and mortgages, allowing you to rebuild your credit history in Canada.

Getting a Canadian credit card

If you apply for a Canadian credit card with a bank that’s affiliated with a US bank, it’s likely they’ll take your US credit score into consideration. Even with this, it’s likely that you’ll be given a low credit limit, like $2k.

If you apply for a Canadian credit card without utilizing your US credit score, it’s likely they’ll require you to start with a secured credit card. This will allow you to build your credit score in Canada, which is a great way to start over if your credit in the US wasn’t so great.

Some banks offer special credit card deals for new residents. TD offers a credit card with a limit of $1k for new residents. You can get a higher limit with a secured card from TD. CIBC offers similar options for temporary workers.

Amex Global Card Transfer

If you have an eligible US AmEx, you can apply for a new AmEx in Canada with your US credit score.

banking in canada as a us citizen

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